Category Archives: NCLB

Betsy DeVos Broke the Ed. Reform Coalition – For Now

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as United States Secretary of Education, she required an unprecedented tie-breaker vote by Vice President Mike Pence.  This was because all 48 Senate Democrats voted against her along with 2 Republicans.  A barrage of phone calls from constituents, her demonstrable ignorance about federal education policy, her utter lack of experience with running a large organization, and unanswered questions about her financial conflicts of interest could not scuttle her nomination – but it got closer than any cabinet nominee in recent memory.  Betsy DeVos took her office with a the only bipartisan consensus being the one against her.

On the one hand, DeVos presented a very reasonable target for opposition.  She really has no relevant experience whatsoever.  She is an ideologue rather than a expert who has made her “name” in education by leveraging her inherited wealth into buying the votes of state legislators.  While many school reform advocates favor shifting tax money to privately managed entities, DeVos appears to see the privatization of public money as a goal in and of itself without regard for outcomes.  Advocacy groups funded by her actually scuttled legislation in Michigan that would have kept failing charter schools from expanding, and she has demonstrated no interest in holding the overwhelmingly for profit charter sector in her home state accountable to much of anything, leaving Michigan sending $1 billion annually into a sector rife with self dealing and absent any oversight worthy of the wordDeVos favored policies have wrought additional havoc on Detroit Public Schools, leaving children wandering a landscape with a glut of seats which are distributed so unequally that getting to a school consumes hours of commuting time and where families are encouraged to “vote with their feet” – even if it means changing schools multiple times a year.

And if that record were not enough, DeVos gave Senators plenty of reasons to oppose her during her testimony which was peppered with evasions and displays suggesting she knows painfully little about federal education policy.  She whiffed a question on one of the central policy issues of the past decade.  She bobbed and weaved to avoid talking about accountability.  She appeared to have no knowledge about federal laws regarding educating students with disabilities.  She was pathetically glib about the question of guns in schools.  And when Senators sent her written questions to answer in further detail after her hearing, she plagiarized some of  her responses.  On top of all of that, DeVos was confirmed with votes from a raft of Republican Senators who reply on her cash for their campaign coffers.

So given this basket of deplorable qualities, it is not so surprising that her nomination went right down to the wire with not one Democratic vote and two Republicans breaking ranks as well.

Then again, maybe it is a bit surprising.

Democrats, after all, have been full members of the education reform club for some time now.  As Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post notes, Democrats who opposed DeVos’ confirmation have not been shy about joining the education reform coalition in the past two decades:

That’s why it was unusual when, in 2001, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat, gave critical support to the new conservative Republican president, George W. Bush, in passing a new education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A bipartisan, they said, was to make sure public schools attended to the needs of all students, but the law actually became known for creating new “accountability” measures for schools based on controversial standardized test scores.

By embracing the NCLB system of high stakes testing coupled with dramatic consequences, Democrats enabled the move to privatize more and more public school money as charter schools proliferated in the wake of schools being labeled as failing.   Today, a cadre of Democratic politicians such as former Newark Mayor and now Senator Cory Booker, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and yes, former President Barack Obama are as dedicated to some or all of the central tenants of education reform as any Republican.  And as the debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act demonstrated, most Congressional Democrats are still in favor of high stakes accountability testing that is the centerpiece of education reform – and which provides the leverage necessary for Betsy DeVos to have wrought her special kind of chaos on her home state of Michigan and leaves her poised to try the same at a national level.

How Democrats got to this point is a layers and complicated situation.  Some followed the lead of many of the nation’s most venerable civil rights organizations who argued in 2001 and continue to argue that high stakes accountability is vital to make certain that states and communities do not ignore communities of color in allocating education resources.  This coalition split somewhat from the mainstream of education reform when the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion in the election last year, citing the widespread problems of fraud and lack of accountability in the sector, but the general premise that schools with high percentages of minority students will be neglected without high stakes accountability is powerful and rooted in centuries of systemic racism.  Representative Mark Takano, who is one of the few members of Congress who actually has teaching experience, also explained that his colleagues assume that accountability systems which make sense for banks and for legal entities work in public education:

First, I don’t have a lot of time to talk with my colleagues and have this kind of conversation. Second, the attention span of the average member is so short, and it’s hard to have a conversation that goes beyond a superficial level of knowledge.

So when you come to Congress with particular expertise, you tend to stick with your expertise regardless of the topic. Take Elizabeth Warren. I really love the woman. She makes my heart beat when I watch her on banking. When she says we should have broken up the big banks, I say, you go, Elizabeth Warren. But she has been a lawyer all her life. When she takes a position on education, she brings her experience as a lawyer on the issue of accountability. And to her, accountability is some sort of punishment.

Certainly there has to be some level of accountability. But if you liken education to bean counting, that’s not going to work. Likewise, if your background is in criminal justice or civil rights, you’re likely to want to remedy education problems by putting into place a law with all these hammers to correct the ways in which minorities are systematically excluded. But that same mentality isn’t going to work in education.

Representative Takano makes a compelling case that it is very difficult for Representatives and Senators who possess little practical or academic expertise in education to discern how incentives commonly used in legal and civil rights contexts will fail to achieve the same results in education.  Further, given the way that time and influence operate at the federal government’s level, it is extremely difficult for what teachers and administrators know about the system and the nature of teaching and learning to reach Congress.

In addition to these shortcomings, it is indisputable that other Democratic members of Congress have been enthralled by the enthusiasm for “big data” in the technology sector.  The Obama Department of Education was particularly convinced that large data sets from standardized tests could sort failing schools from thriving ones and incompetent teachers from brilliant ones, and this conviction was certainly aided by the enthusiasm of technology sector donors and philanthropists like Bill Gates.  Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for use of “big data” to rank and sort schools and individual teachers far outstrips the evidence that it can work the way Bill Gates thinks it can, and we are nearly three years past the American Statistical Association issuing a statement urging policy makers to not use value added measures in individual teacher evaluations.  Regardless, the Arne Duncan and John King education departments continued to plow time and resources into promoting those measures, leading President of the NEA, Lily Eskelen-Garcia to dub the department an “evidence-free zone.”

Yet another strain among Democrats has been the perspective of firm believers in the Clinton “Third Way” style of centrism – emphasis on free trade and market based solutions while defending some aspects of the social safety net and maintaining a left of center stance on many social issues.  It certainly has been an effective political stance in the West’s most conservative Democracy, and as the traditional labor support for Democrats has waned, it also attracted campaign donors from sectors of the economy that increasingly benefited from growing income inequality.  But it also brought the inevitable expectations that Democrats taking those donations would favor policies espoused by those donors – who have been hostile to organized labor and in favor of school privatization.  Third Way Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emmanuel have been dreadful for public schools, public school teachers, and public school students as a result.

It is therefore surprising that Betsy DeVos, with her lengthy portfolio of favoring school privatization, could not muster a single Democratic vote except when she is regarded as an almost living example of education reform’s reductio ad absurdum.  In this light, it is not that Betsy DeVos is wrong to favor school privatization per se, but she is wrong to favor it in the wrong way.  That construction was all over the statement opposing her nomination issued by “Democrats” for Education Reform, the hedge fund created advocacy group aimed at convincing Democrats to expand school choice and privatization:

“Outside of her commitment to parental choice, the hearing provided little insight on Mrs. DeVos’ vision for educating the 50 million American children who currently attend public schools. We are strong supporters of choice married with accountability, but as vital as parental choice is, choice alone is not an answer for ensuring the education of 50 million kids.

“In sum, the hearing did little to clarify concerns that progressive reformers have about Mrs. DeVos’ policy commitment to strong accountability and a strong federal role spanning the scope of the Education Department’s work, from finance equity and teacher preparation to higher education and civil rights. We do hope that at some point Mrs. Devos will speak more expansively about her vision for all public schools and the federal role in ensuring our schools work for our kids. But based on the record before us, we cannot support her nomination.

DFER positions itself as a voice of “progressive reformers,” and the education reform movement has certainly been skillful at positioning itself as a civil rights struggle.  DeVos’ enthusiasm for any privatized school, even those engaged in outright fraud, is simply too far for their brand.  Last month, before the DeVos hearings, Peter Greene astutely noted that charter school enthusiasts were concerned about her nomination to protect their brand, to protect the left flank of the reform coalition, to block vouchers, and because DeVos’ regulation free ideal is not actually good for many charters fighting over finite pools of money.  Jersey Jazzman further noted that reform Democrats were bemoaning the nomination of DeVos, but on the premise that the center “consensus” on accountability, school choice, and charters was working really well until Trump went over the top with his pick for Secretary of Education.  This is, as he noted, bollocks because like their counterparts on the conservative side of school choice, reform Democrats ignored evidence about the charter sector as a whole and never acknowledged how those with impressive test scores achieve them.

Consider this painful exchange between Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and DeVos during her confirmation hearing:

I honestly do not know how she got ten votes in the Senate after that, but we should examine the Senator’s question and its premise as well.  On the one hand, it is an excellent question, and given DeVos’ long record of favoring any private entity getting public money over any truly public school, she was either going to evade answering it, outright lie, or give an answer even Republican partisans could not have ignored.  On the other hand, Senator Kaine’s belief in “equal accountability” for all schools that receive public funds should break apart the education reform coalition if every Democrat actually believed that and meant it.  In Senator Kaine’s defense, his record is not one of unabashed love for charter schools, but plenty of Democrats love to tout urban charters schools, especially of the “no excuses” models that boast about high test scores.  The rationale is that those schools “prove” that “poverty is no excuse” and that all things being equal, urban schools can match suburban test performance.

The trouble?  All things are almost never equal.  Urban charters, even ones with high test scores, are not held to equal accountability with public schools and such accountability will never be accepted by the sector.  Even if they are spotted being free from union work rules, charters inherently draw from a pool of families more attentive to the system than fully public schools can guarantee, and the “no excuses” charter schools championed by Arne Duncan, John King, and a raft of Democratic politicians use restrictive conduct codes and heavy use of out of school suspensions to force either quick conformity by students or quick withdrawals.  This shows up in the research all of the time, and the end result are schools claiming that they have the “same” students as their host districts but which in reality have fewer of the students with the greatest needs, leaving district schools to care for a population that is even more high need with fewer resources with which to do it.  The equal accountability that Senator Kaine favors does not exist and will not be accepted by school choice advocates, even those on his side of the aisle, unless something much more earth shaking than Betsy DeVos’ tenure in Washington happens.

So, for now, the education reform coalition has split, but mostly it has split into conservatives hoping to achieve long thwarted dreams of school vouchers and so-called “progressive” reformers asserting that Betsy DeVos “goes too far”without questioning any of the underlying premises of high stakes accountability and privatization.  Unless Democrats get themselves a genuine education on the core issues facing our school system, it is entirely likely that the education reform coalition will just bide its time and re-emerge as strong as ever.

1 Comment

Filed under Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Cory Booker, Dannel Malloy, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Funding, John King, NCLB, politics, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Secretary of Privatization

For almost 16 years, across two administrations of different parties, America’s teachers have watched federal education officials embrace destructive policies.  President George W. Bush ushered in the era of test and punishment based accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.  President Barack Obama entered office with promises of relief from unrealistic expectations and punitive incentives – only to double down on testing’s importance by favoring value-added teacher evaluations and to promote privatization through the charter school sector which has increasingly placed portions of our educational commons into hands avoiding public oversight.  With a Secretary of Education under President Obama who declared that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to New Orleans schools because the recovery turned the entire city over to privately managed charters, teachers could be forgiven for wondering how anything could get worse regardless of who won the election this month.

it-could-be-worse

god-help-us

its-worse

After floating a raft of names – from former rival and now designated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson to New York City charter magnate Eva Moskowitz to former Washington D.C. School Chancellor and Patron Saint of Firing Teachers  Michelle Rhee to actually qualified school choice advocate and Hoover Institute Fellow Dr. Williamson Evers – Donald Trump has settled upon Michigan billionaire and school privatization zealot Betsy DeVos as his nominee for Secretary of Education.  Friends have asked me directly what I think about this pick, and I have frankly responded that if Ms. DeVos can accomplish for the nation’s schools what she has manage to do in Michigan by leveraging her fortune to buy her desired results, then we are well and truly screwed.  Ms. DeVos has never attended a public school, never sent her children to a public school, never studied education at any level, never taught a day in her life.  What she does bring to the post is an unparalleled zeal for turning as much of our public schools as possible over to unregulated hands and for sending as much public school money as possible to private and religious institutions.  With her appointment, the Trump administration’s priorities for our nation’s schools are made crystal clear: to hell with quality, to hell with equity, to hell with everything except privatization.

As early as 2011, Betsy DeVos was well recognized as an influential if stealthy advocate for school choice, especially in the form of vouchers.  Such efforts are always couched in terms that emphasize empowering parents and using competition to make all schools better, but the agenda has little to do with excellent education for all and much more to do with taking the nation’s $600 billion school budget and getting it into private hands.  Having failed in 2000 to convince Michigan voters to institute vouchers, DeVos altered strategy and backed legislators and bills that favored vouchers and privatization in various states.  Forming All Children Matter in 2003, DeVos quickly spent $7.6 million in the first year to get electoral results in favor of privatization.  If you’ve ever heard a conservative politician use the term “government schools” instead of “public schools,” you have Betsy DeVos and her husband (and Amway fortune heir) Dick to thank for it.  It turns out that slapping the label “government” on any publicly funded good is an effective way to bend public opinion against it.

The DeVos family was also deeply involved in repackaging vouchers from their original racist origin as a way to get white children out of desegregation and into an “only hope”for urban children “trapped” in “failing schools.”  The problem with that strategy is that with years of evidence in from voucher programs like Milwaukee there simply isn’t evidence that vouchers do very much for their alleged beneficiaries – although they do manage to get public money into private hands fairly well. In fact, in Milwaukee, students receiving vouchers performed worse than their counterparts in the city’s public schools.  The DeVos affinity for vouchers is not limited to secular institutions, and, they have deep and lasting ties to conservative Christian activists who see secular public education as an out and out enemy that has to be ended.  Betsy DeVos has served on the board of the Acton Institute which has featured events by Christian Dominionist Gary North who is on record writing, without irony: “So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

The DeVos record in her home base of Michigan should be on great concern to those who see public education as a public good that should not be turned over to profiteers.  Her efforts in Michigan and nationally aim to influence policies steering as much money as is possible away from fully public schools and into “competition” in the form of charters.  The Michigan experiment has been especially woeful for public education as the state’s charter sector is stupendously unregulated and an eye-watering 80% of charter schools are run by for-profit management corporations that don’t even try to hide that they are self dealing.  The Detroit Free Press reported in August that the state is sending $1 billion in tax payers’ money to charter schools but cannot be bothered to hold them accountable for much of anything:

Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.

And a record number of charter schools run by for-profit companies that rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it, saying they’re private and not subject to disclosure laws. Michigan leads the nation in schools run by for-profits.

According to The New York Times, a 2010 law backed by a DeVos funded group pushed to expand charters, but DeVos’ group also blocked provisions that would have prevented failing charters from expanding and replicating.  Since that law passed, the number of charters in Michigan that are among the state’s lowest performing schools has doubled.  Another story in the Times illustrates the chaos this has unleashed upon students and families in Detroit in the name of “empowering” them with choice.  Decades into the charter school experiment and more than a decade into the DeVos influenced school landscape, Detroit has 30,000 more school seats than it needs and schools go into heated competition to fill those seats in time to get state money determined by headcount.  Charter school seats are concentrated near downtown while more impoverished neighborhoods with more school aged children have fewer schools – requiring those seeking choice to travel significant distances in a city of 140 square miles.  Many charter operators get around the requirements to have open lotteries by layering the application process with burdensome paperwork, unusual enrollment periods, or by advertising in sources they know the city’s most impoverished families do not read.  The result is that a great many families seeking charter seats end up at poorly run schools in Michigan’s unregulated environment and end up switching schools multiple times in the elementary years — an environment that Tonya Allen, President of the Skillman Foundation, compared to “The Hunger Games” for schools.

Perhaps so much disruption would be deemed worthwhile if Michigan had anything of merit to show for it.  Unfortunately, such merit is hard to see even after so many years of DeVos favored school choice policies.  Consider Michigan’s 8th grade results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both mathematics and reading.  In math, Michigan’s students in 2015 showed no improvement at all over students from 2000, and while the gap between White and Black students did narrow from 45 points in 2000 to 35 points in 2015, the gap between students in poverty and student not in poverty was essentially unchanged in the same period.  Meanwhile, 8th grade reading scores were even worse – with 8th graders in 2015 also performing no better overall than in 2000, but with the gap between Black and White students remaining unchanged in that time and the gap between students in poverty and students not in poverty growing from 13 points to 23 points. The lack of quality control and oversight in Detroit is so bad that even national philanthropists eager to promote school choice and charters routinely pass over the Motor City.

Policies and politicians favored by Betsy DeVos and backed by her considerable resources have unleashed chaos in Michigan schools, leading to a charter school environment that even some charter school boosters find difficult to justify.  And the result of her efforts since the the early 2000s is a school system that isn’t actually performing any better than before she managed to leverage her fortune in favor of unregulated choice and charter school proliferation.  No wonder then that, although she has her fans among pro-privatizing politicians like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, she is also regarded as highly dangerous from others in her home state.  The President of Michigan’s state board of education said, “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and hand-feeding it schoolchildren….Devos’ agenda is to break the public education system, not educate kids, and replace it with a for-profit model.”  A Democratic state senator from Deerborn Heights added, “The fact that she now is going to have a platform to do that on a national level should be of great concern to everyone in this country.”

If confirmed as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos will almost certainly be in charge of whatever emerges from Donald Trump’s promise to allocate $20 billion to expand school choice in the form of charter schools and voucher plans.  In his announcement of the plan, Trump even used DeVos favored code language by referencing students trapped in “failing government schools,”  and he thanked Ron Packard, the CEO of the for-profit charter company that runs the failing charter school that served as the backdrop for his speech. It is almost impossible to imagine optics that better sum up Betsy DeVos’ record on education: coded language used to demean our educational commons, a for profit charter management company, and a school that is failing to improve students’ measured performance.  In fact, the only person in the story likely to be doing very well is Mr. Packard himself who used to pull in a salary of $5 million to run the K12 Inc. family of for profit virtual charter schools (with an educational record so dubious that the NCAA refuses to accept credits from the schools) and whose Pansophic Learning is now the largest for profit operator of charter schools in Ohio.  Secretary designate DeVos must love it.

Cynics – and even some optimists – might doubt just how much damage a DeVos led Department of Education could inflict.  After all, the nation spends over $600 billion annually on public education, but only 9% of that is federally funded which is why Trump’s voucher and choice proposal assumes, very optimistically, that states will kick in over $100 billion additionally over the $20 billion from the federal government.  The problem with this view is that while the federal government does not foot a lot of education money, it can unleash a hell of a lot of chaos with the money it does spend via incentives and regulation.  For example, Title 1 funds, intended for schools serving high percentages of economically disadvantaged students, reached 56,000 schools serving 21 million students in 2009-2010.  Luke Messer, a Republican Congressman from Indiana who is a friend of Mike Pence and who founded the Congressional School Choice Caucus already suggested that some or all of the money for Trump’s school choice program could come from the $15 billion the federal government spends on Title I.  Grabbing money intended to help public schools that serve the nation’s most needy children and turning it into an uncontrolled experiment in vouchers and unregulated charter schools is exactly the kind of project Betsy DeVos would relish.  And even if she only got her hands on a fraction of that sum, nobody should forget the degree of chaos Arne Duncan managed with only $4 billion in Race to the Top funds at his disposal.

In the end, Ms. DeVos may be frustrated less by available funds and a willing Congress than by her own preference for pulling strings outside the limelight.  As far back as 1997, she openly admitted that she donated money to Republican politicians in full expectation of getting a return on her investment:  “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”  But it is  a lot easier to buy the fealty of selected politicians and to hand them legislation to pass into law and to do so from the wings than the try to lead a national effort to convince Americans to gut their public schools.  Despite 30 years of a relentless school failure narrative, Americans tend to rate their local school systems fairly highly, and parents with at least one child in school rate them higher still.  If Betsy DeVos is going to leverage the promised money for school choice into substantial change, she will have to do something she has never really done – step into the sunlight and talk to us regular folks about why we should gamble our children on her ideas that have such a remarkably poor record.

I doubt that she has the skill set to spread her ideas to America’s suburban schools, but if Congress actually does give her a free hand with Title I, she will have the power to deal great harm to America’s poorest children.  As Secretary of Privatization, she can turn many more of our urban schools into profit centers that enrich private interests far more efficiently than they care about the children within them.  Expect more people like Ron Packard to cash in while our nation’s children and teachers suffer.

image

I told you suckers what I was about, didn’t I?

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Corruption, Drumpf, Funding, NCLB, politics, School Choice

A Teacher’s Case For Hillary Clinton

I suppose I ought to front load this:  In the Democratic Party Primary in New York State, I voted for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  My reasons for the doing so were various, but they focused heavily upon how well Senator Sanders articulated what I consider to be a genuine crisis in our time: the out of control growth in income inequality and the consequent damage to opportunity and justice that comes with it.  Senator Sanders’ ability to make a genuinely competitive campaign outside of the system of large donor politics was also inspiring, and it pointed to another vital issue – how our campaign finance system grants large donors more access and more voice to the point of commanding far more attention than the voters.

In contrast, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, while acknowledging such issues, has spent the last quarter century at or near the very highest offices of political power in the country.  While I did not doubt that she recognizes these as problems, I did question her ability to give full critique to them while running a campaign that is fully enmeshed in big donor politics, especially when given the choice of Senator Sanders’ avoidance of typical large donors.  Further, as an advocate for public education and full-throated critic of the current reform environment, Secretary Clinton’s long standing connections to education reform was, and remains, a real difficulty for me.  Secretary Clinton has been supported by Eli Broad, whose education “philanthropy” has been consistently aimed at aggressively favoring charter schools over fully public schools.  Secretary Clinton’s PAC received a massive donation from Alice Walton, and the Clinton Foundation has been a financial beneficiary of the Walton Family Foundation whose education efforts are geared towards privatization and hostility to teachers’ unions.  “Democrats” for Education Reform, an organization founded largely by Whitney Tilson in a effort to convince Democrats to support anti-union and pro-privatization policies that are  more typical of Republicans, greeted Secretary Clinton’s campaign with enthusiasm.  Secretary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair is John Podesta who is President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and the founder of the Center for American Progress (CAP).  CAP, while often progressive and innovative on a range of issue, is reliably on the wrong side of education reform. If there is a bad idea being proposed for our public schools, there is a good chance that CAP has written a position paper in support of it.

Suffice it to say that this has been at least a bit of a difficult journey.  In reality, finding American politicians who truly support – and understand – public education and its purposes is not actually easy.  Senator Sanders’ education record – beyond college financing – is not actually stellar considering missed opportunities to trim back today’s test and punish environment.  California Congressman Mark Takano is a former school teacher who has explained that most of his colleagues, however well-intentioned, have limited time to learn an issue as complex as teaching and learning and are readily swayed by ideas that fit their known areas of expertise such as law and finance.

So how have I come to support Secretary Clinton’s bid for the Presidency?

One thing to remember is that, despite my initial support for her opponent, I find a huge portion of the criticism hurled at Secretary Clinton either false or overblown.  The Clintons really have been the target of a now generation long effort to both defame them and to blow up every misstep into major scandal.  Despite her currently dismal poll numbers on trustworthiness, Secretary Clinton has been admirably honest in her campaign statements – this really isn’t even close in comparison to the Republican nominee.  Secretary Clinton has been endlessly accused of corruption, and while I agree that our big donor political system is rife with the corrupting influence of money, it is hardly fair to claim that Secretary Clinton is some extraordinary example.  This is a system of campaign finance that touches most elected officials at most levels of government.  60 Minutes did a story in April about how the need to raise campaign money is so important to remaining in Congress that Congressional Republicans had personal targets of raising $18,000 a day over a six month period.  While I desperately want this system to change, it is not fair to single out Secretary Clinton as some kind of avatar of political corruption merely for having been around for as long as she has.

While her long time associations and past positions have worried me, it is also true that Secretary Clinton has proven herself persuadable on key education issues.   Last Fall, she created a near panic among education reform advocates for saying something that is objectively true: many charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”  This is objectively true by any normal analysis, especially of the high flying “no excuses” schools who claim they “prove” that urban public schools are full of lazy teachers — even while they do everything they can to suspend students they do not want until they leave.  It is also fair to say that Secretary Clinton seems to be trying to have it at least one and a half ways on charter schools, making statements about high quality “public” charter schools and trying to thread a needle on the difference between “for profit” and “not for profit” charters.  These are attempts to dichotomize situations that are often much murkier.  For example, a charter school can be run by a “not for profit” management organization that then contracts services to companies that entirely for profit – and which have ties to the people running the not for profit.  Fraudulent use of public funds is a very real problem across the charter sector and unlikely to improve without strict public scrutiny that charter operators and their investors have mightily resisted.  Further, current school financing situations generally mean that charter schools, as a whole, operate at the expense of their host districts who find that their fully public schools have higher concentrations of the highest need students without accompanying increases in spending to help them succeed.

Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party, however, appear to be making some progress on the issue as evidence by subtle but meaningful changes in the platform.  The original platform language on charter schools was basically more of the same – equating them with fully public schools and insisting that parents have options while offering a relatively meaningless opposition to for profit charters and a weak call for transparency.  The new language inserted:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

This should not be controversial – unless you believe that it is a great thing for schools accepting public money to operate to the detriment of existing schools and to fail to retain their students.  The platform also addressed accountability and testing, adding language that called for testing to meet reliability and validity standards, opposing testing that unfairly labels vulnerable students as failing, using test data to redirect funds, close schools, and in teacher and principal evaluation, and it directly supported parents’ right to opt out of standardized tests “without penalty for the either the student or their school.”

Shavar Jeffries, head of “Democrats” for Education Reform, was not at all pleased.  His statement said the platform had been “hijacked” at the last minute and declared that the platform would harm the nation’s most valuable children.

You have to wonder about someone who thinks calling on charter schools to stop kicking out so many poor and minority children and not financially destabilize their host district and calling for testing to be used in ways that do not actually harm schools and teachers and children is a massive affront to progress.  The good news is that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party as a whole may have begun a slow and ponderous turn from failed policies of test and punish and letting charter schools do whatever they want.

Another issue for teachers to consider is the composition of the Supreme Court.  This term, the court heard Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and the court’s five conservative justices were poised to issue a death blow to public sector unions and to rule that people who enjoy the protection of a union contract did not have to contribute money to the union if they do not join.  Such agency fees are a vital way for unions to still have enough revenue to represent all members even though they cannot mandate membership.  A decision against the CTA would have overturned decades of precedent and only the unexpected death of Associate Justice Scalia prevented the anti-union ruling.  The composition of the Supreme Court should be on teachers’ minds not simply because of the Friedrichs case, but also because of Vergara v. State of California case which is working through appeals and which is inspiring copycat lawsuits financed by dark money.

Where they cannot win with elections and legislation, education “reformers” are trying to break the back of teacher unions and are trying to sue away teachers’ workplace rights in court.  The four justices appointed by President Bill Clinton and by President Obama voted against the most recent case to reach the court.  The four justices appointed by President Reagan and by both Presidents Bush voted in favor.  There is no reason to believe Secretary Clinton would appoint justices markedly different than those appointed by her Democratic predecessors.

Secretary Clinton should also get some recognition for her choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.  Many progressives that I know are not happy with the pick, citing that Senator Kaine has, at best, a mixed record on many issues of sincere importance.  On education, however, he was one of the most promising of Secretary Clinton’s potential running mates.  Simply put, among prominent Democrats, Senator Kaine is not a favorite of education “reformers”.  As Virginia’s governor, he was not a proponent of standardization, high stakes testing, and privatization – the grand trifecta of what passes for education reform today.   Further, Senator Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, is Virginia’s current Secretary of Education and in that position, she has worked to reform standardized testing in the Commonwealth, blaming it for making the achievement gap worse, and she has opposed charter school expansion.

Consider the other possibilities.  New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was reported to be a top contender, and as a rising star in the party, he certainly would have added quite a lot to Secretary Clinton’s ticket, especially with his prodigious political talent.  But he is also a horrible choice on education policy, supporting vouchers, privatization, merit pay, and high stakes accountability testing.  Frankly, I was holding my breath wondering if I could ever be pleased voting for Secretary Clinton in the general election, and while Senator Kaine may not be a fully progressive pick, his selection gives me confidence that on education issues, Secretary Clinton is listening to a much broader and more informed set of advisers than President Obama has.

The issue of listening is actually another reason to be hopeful of a Clinton Presidency on education.  Ezra Klein wrote a fascinating portrait of Secretary Clinton, one that discussed some of her flaws as well, that got to a central strength of her leadership style – listening.  Klein stated that this seemed almost too cliche for him at first, but person after person repeated the same observation:  Secretary Clinton not only listens to others, she does so with a sincere interest in understanding their point of view, and she saves notes and records from those conversations to use when it comes time to craft policy:

It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.

This is substantial, and it makes me consider the very strong possibility that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party’s “evolution” on issues like charter schools and high stakes testing may be more than cosmetic and that they might signal the beginning of a shift away from the era of testing and punishment and privatization.  President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten has long been a supporter of Secretary Clinton.  While some rank and file members of the AFT were critical of the union’s early endorsement and while I do know members who have questioned the union’s efforts to cooperate with education reformers in the past, two things are indisputable:  1) as evidence has come in, AFT has been more forceful on opposing policies such as value added measures in teacher evaluation; 2) President Weingarten had a substantial and sincere role in assisting a ground breaking study by the Badass Teachers Association on workplace issues for teachers.  This study gained major, unprecedented, response from AFT membership, and issues that it highlighted even made their way into the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed last year.  Given Secretary Clinton’s leadership style and given President Weingarten’s role in supporting her this year, it is entirely reasonable to hope that genuine shifts are beginning.

Of course, it is possible that I am entirely wrong.  I accept that.  President Obama certainly said many of the right things about testing and accountability in 2008, only to hurl our schools into even worse policies than those imposed by the Bush administration. The reality is that we are 30 years into a policy cycle premised on accountability rather than equity and 15 years into a policy cycle using high stakes testing as a bludgeon on schools.  The reform side of education today is backed by enormously powerful and enormously wealthy interests such as Rupert Murdoch who claimed in 2010 that education was a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting to be “transformed” by technology.  That’s a pile of potential profits that none of them will simply walk away from readily.  At their best, education reformers tend to be blind to the consequences of creatively disrupting a core democratic institution the way they disrupt wireless communication.  At their worst, they are outright fraudsters enriching themselves at the expense of equity and justice.

The consequence if I am wrong about Secretary Clinton on education is that we continue to argue with the Federal DOE and that we continue to lobby state by state for needed changes from punitive accountability and towards support and growth.  These are arguments that are gaining traction community by community, so if Secretary Clinton turns out to produce no substantive change in education policy, there is at least familiar, if exhausting, work ahead.  Certainly, education reformers have no intention of going anywhere regardless of federal education policy, so we’ll be in this for the long haul.

But what is the alternative in this election?

I have seen friends insist that others make a positive case to vote for Secretary Clinton without mentioning her opponent.  That is an entirely reasonable request, and I hope that I have made a positive, if heavily qualified, case on those grounds.  However, it is also impossible to ignore her opponent in this election.  Whatever flaws Secretary Clinton may or may not have, they are within the normal parameters of American politics.  Donald Trump is far beyond the bounds of acceptability, not merely because of his utter and total lack of qualifications for the job, not merely because of his horrendous temperament, not even because of his documented lies, racism, and sexism — but because he represents a genuine threat to our system of governance. President Trump guarantees a rolling series of Constitutional crises from the moment he is sworn into office.

Some public education voters may be swayed by his promise to get rid of the Common Core State Standards.  Among all of his empty promises, that is quite a whopper as he will possess literally no leverage to change that.  While the CCSS were pushed into place with federal incentives during Race to the Top, the states were the ones that ultimately adopted them in response to those incentives.  Does Mr. Trump propose a DOE grant program to convince states to repeal the standards now?  Actually, that power is pretty much gone as the Every Student Succeeds Act passed last year places extraordinary limits on the Department of Education’s ability to mandate or coerce states into adopting standards and academic content.  Whatever fighting is going to continue over the Common Core standards, it is entirely at the state level now.

What passes for education policy from the Trump campaign was in full view when his son, Donald Trump Jr., addressed the Republican National Convention and blasted our public schools, comparing them to “Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”  He touted school choice and the free market, and he further decried the Democrats as more concerned with “tenured teachers” than with children’s education.

If you really like Campbell Brown’s war on teachers, you will absolutely love the Trump Administration.

Donald Trump’s broader proposals will harm the children in our classrooms.  One of his most consistent proposals is to deport every single undocumented immigrant in the country, an idea that would require massive investments in extra police, extra police powers, mass detention facilities, and emergency courts.  Beyond the stark horror of trying to round up and deport many millions of people, the plan would inflict terrible hardship upon millions of our school children.  Approximately, 1.4% of school children in America are themselves undocumented immigrants, and in 2012, roughly 4.5 million children born in America, and therefore American citizens themselves, lived with at least one parent who was an undocumented immigrant. Donald Trump would inflict unimaginable agony upon them.

American Muslims are only about 1% of our population, but they would take it harshly on the chin due to Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.  Nearly two thirds of adult Muslims in America were born in another country, which means Muslim children in our schools are very likely to have relatives who live abroad — and who would be unable to even visit during a Trump administration.  In addition, Donald Trump continuously defames Muslims in America from falsely claiming that 1000s of Muslims cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center to claiming that Muslims in America “know what is going on and they don’t tell us,” blaming the entire Muslim community for the acts of a very few extremists.  Muslim school children face increasing cases of bias and acts of hate against them — can we imagine what will happen to those students in schools if Donald Trump is President using that bully pulpit to spread his lies and hate?

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech painted a picture of America spinning into chaos, terrorism, and violence.  While the facts do not support these claims at all, he used them to repeatedly claim that he will be a “law and order” President and that “safety will be restored.”  If this does not send chills down your spine, you need to investigate history and ask yourself if children of color in our schools will see “safety” or if they will see even more aggressive and even more antagonistic policing in their communities and in their schools.  Donald Trump’s platform is a manifest threat to millions upon millions of the children in our schools.

All of this is bad enough, but Donald Trump represents a different and even worse threat.  It is unfortunate that we have used the word “fascist” as a political epithet in recent decades largely to mean “I don’t like how conservative this politician is.”  The term has actual meaning and a set of core ideas and themes that are emblematic of actual fascism that is extremely hard to map onto typical American politics with any honesty.  But not this time.  While not “pure” fascism in the traditional sense, both Donald Trump’s acceptance speech and the overall agenda of his campaign hit a distressing number of fascist themes – call it American proto-fascism, but the fact remains that Donald Trump is a genuine threat to our system of governance.

In 1995, Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote an essay about what he called “Ur-Fascism” or “Eternal Fascism”.  Having witnessed the rise of Italian Fascism and being forced to participate in Fascist competitions about the glory of the state and Mussolini, Eco was well equipped to explain central themes of fascism that managed to endure even though they did not manifest as national political forces in Europe of the early 1990s.  Consider some of Eco’s themes of Eternal Fascism and how well they line up with Donald Trump’s speech accepting his nomination:

  • Cult of Tradition: Trump’s portrait of an America falling into violence and chaos was an inherent effort to call for a return to a traditional, nearly mythic, national order.  His signature theme of “Make America Great Again” inherently calls for a period of glory lost to our current generation.  Trumpism sees no advancement except in a return to a mythologized past.
  • Rejection of Modernism: Nearly everything about the world we have made since the end of WWII seems a threat to Trump.  Modern economics.  International agreements. Inclusive immigration policies.  He does not propose reforming them. They are all rejected in favor of a retreat to isolation and protection.
  • Cult of Action for Action’s Sake: Throughout this campaign, Trump has repeatedly emphasized that we must “do something” about all of the problems he claims we have.  He does not have a real plan because that is not the point — we must act and must act now.  Trump’s own son, himself the product of elite private schools and universities, declared his disdain for the educated elite and proclaimed that he and his siblings learned from those with “PhDs in common sense,” indicting expertise in favor of blunt action.
  • Fear of Difference: Trump has thrived on seeking to make his supporters afraid:  undocumented immigrants are murderers and rapists; Muslim immigrants and visitors are potential terrorists; Black Lives Matter protesters are thugs seeking to murder the police and overthrow order.  His support is hugely based upon stoking these fears.
  • Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class: Unlike progressive politics which identifies economic hardships and proposes policy fixes, Trump identifies those same hardships and uses them to whip up more anxiety and resentment and a belief among followers that their rightful place in the economic order has been stolen from them, leading to…
  • Obsession With A Plot: Again, Trump thrives on the resentments of his followers and directs their fear and sense of humiliation towards others who have victimized them.  Again, this should not be mistaken with progressive politics that seeks to address economic insecurity through policy.  In Trump’s speech and campaign, the fault is that others, immigrants, Muslims, minorities,  foreign governments are existential threats to his followers and must be removed or controlled or beaten.
  • Humiliation from Enemies: Consider the typical Trump tack on trade — everyone cheats the United States and gets rich at our expense. In the world according to Trump most of our supposed allies take advantage of us and laugh at us while our adversaries do not respect us and cheat us.
  • Life Is Permanent Warfare: Trump promises swift military action against certain enemies, even to the point of committing overt war crimes, but the themes of war are evident in his constant talk of winning and losing.  To Donald Trump, all of our problems are summed up by how we “do not win anymore” because there are only two possibilities – victory or defeat.  This gives Trumpism another theme of Eternal Fascism:
  • Contempt for Weakness: Whether he is mocking the disabled or proclaiming that “only he” can fix our problems, Donald Trump oozes contempt for anyone he sees as weak and viciously attacks on that front.
  • Everyone Educated to Be a Hero:  Trump promises us that we will “win” as a nation and all of us will prosper as a result. Eco links the Fascist impulse to herorism to a willingness, even a desire, to die which seems absent from Trumpism as of yet, but his appeal to our desire to heroic victory is present.
  • Machismo: Heroic death may be elusive, but macho strutting and bragging is readily available to the Ur-Fascist.  Donald Trump’s hyper-machismo is on full display with its attendant sexism and disdain for women.  This is perhaps one of his most reliable personality traits from his personal life to his business career to his current career in politics.
  • Selective Populism: Fascism requires that individuals give up their individuality for a Common Will.  This is not entirely present in Trumpism as it is still wedded to more typical American conservative ideals of individualism, but in his acceptance speech, Trump openly declared “I am your Voice” and said of our problems that “I alone can fix them.”  Trump has openly proclaimed himself the legitimate voice of his aggrieved and furious followers.
  • Opposition to Corrupt Parliamentary Governments:  Trump does not openly advocate the replacement of our Constitutional system of government (assuming, of course, that he remotely understands it), but his contempt for that government is evident.  He repeats endlessly that are leaders are “not very smart” and that his skills are essential to save us.
  • Use of Newspeak: Trump does not yet have a unique form of speech replacing common language, but Fascist regimes typically use diminished syntax and poor vocabulary that requires little reasoning.  That stands on its own as a description of Trump’s speeches to date.

None of this means that Donald Trump intends to replace the United States’ political order with a fascist regime.  To begin with, he does not possess the paramilitary force that historic fascist leaders surrounded themselves with before ascending to power.  Second, he is seeking the Presidency through our existing political structure even as he derides it constantly.  However, it does point to a truly unique danger of a potential Trump Presidency: he holds views of power, authority, and the social and political order that are antithetical to our system of shared power among equal branches of government.  Consider a President Trump ordering our INS and border guard to begin building massive detention centers and rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants. Now picture him being ordered to stop by a federal judge.  Will he stop?  Will he recognize the judiciary’s authority over the executive branch?  Or will he lash out at the judge and simply proceed?  What then?  Does the court hold him in contempt?  Would Congress impeach him under those circumstances?  What happens when he makes good on a promise of ordering the military to violate international and military law?  Do the Joint Chiefs resign en masse?  Does he go through every general and admiral until he finds someone willing to commit a war crime?

Perhaps our Constitutional system would be strong enough to remove him from office.  Perhaps not.  As a nation, our political order has not faced a threat like this since General Beauregard ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Trump is a potential sledge hammer to America’s Constitutional system, a system for which he displays no knowledge and no regard, and to which his views of both his power and of his governing mandate are entirely antithetical.  Donald Trump portrays himself as the avenging voice of an aggrieved and humiliated population on whose behalf he will remove parasitic outsiders and force all of our enemies to “lose” as we “win” under his leadership.  This is a candidate who promises to smash all norms for rhetoric, policy, and respects for the roles of our institutional limits on the Presidency.  He may not seek to be an actual dictator, but he threatens to stretch our system to the very breaking point.

As teachers, we should be horrified by this.  Our system of Common Schools was established in no small part to promote democratic values and to contribute to the health of our civic sector.  Public schools are working instantiations of the ideal that a healthy civic order provides for the education of all and through that education promotes the wise and beneficial exercise of the franchise:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

– Horace Mann, 1848

Over time, we have seen our schools become the very places were advancement in inclusiveness and expansion of the franchise have played out, but this has required working branches of government: executive offices, legislatures, courts responding to the needs of the day and the petitions of people seeking justice.  A Presidency that threatens to damage those institutions and their balance will inevitably damage our schools as the system that supports them is thrown into uncertainty.

Some may read this and accuse me of trying to frighten teachers into a particular vote.  I will gladly own that accusation, for the prospect of Donald Trump assuming the Presidency is truly frightening.  I do not merely believe he must lose this election; I believe he must lose by a margin that thoroughly repudiates his worldview.

I understand that after the past 15 years, it is very hard for many teachers to support a Democrat for President who has been an ally of many in modern education “reform”.  I also accept that the observations I have made in favor of Secretary Clinton may be unpersuasive for many teachers and for good reasons.  I also hope very sincerely that everyone sees what is truly at stake in this election.  If I am correct that Secretary Clinton is beginning a slow pivot on public education, then her administration offers a chance for education policy to, slowly, move towards support and growth instead of test and punish.  If I am wrong about that, then we continue our familiar advocacy on familiar ground.  It will be painful, and it will lead to more harm of schools and children.  But if Donald Trump is President, it is a certainty that millions more of our students will be caught up in his racist and xenophobic policies, and the very political institutions that sustain public education face serious peril.  On election day, I will vote for the hope of a wiser set of education policies from a candidate who has a genuine gift for listening, and I will vote to repudiate what her opponent represents.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Hillary Clinton, NCLB, politics, racism, Unions

The Long Arm of the PARCC?

Dr. Celia Oyler is a professor of education at Teachers College.  Recently, a teacher contacted her with an intelligent and cogent critique of the recent PARCC examination, including a few selections of content from the test itself.  Dr. Oyler published this on her blog as the critique demonstrated very deep flaws within the test, specifically that PARCC is developmentally inappropriate, requiring students to read far above grade level, and that PARCC is dubiously aligned with the Common Core State Standards it allegedly assesses, requiring students to demonstrate skills not evident in the CCSS standards for their grade levels.  As a critique, the teacher’s observations, backed with selected material from the exam, was pointed and a very valuable contribution to the discourse on the examinations.  Because of the highly secretive nature of the exams and because of the extremely restrictive confidentiality agreements those who have access to it have to sign, it has been difficult to find critiques that are actually rooted in what the exams themselves require.

So, of course, that could not stand.

Within a week, Dr. Oyler was contacted by the CEO of PARCC, Laura Slover, with official “requests” that she remove “all of the material reproduced from the PARCC assessments.”  The letter claimed ownership of all “intellectual property” for PARCC, Inc., claimed that Dr. Oyler’s blog “infringed” on PARCC’s copyright, “amplified” the breach of confidentiality the teacher committed by revealing the content to anyone, and that as an “infringer” Dr. Oyler could “be held personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.” Ms. Slover demanded that the material be taken down within 24 hours and asked Dr. Oyler to reveal the name of the teacher who contacted her with the material.  In fact, she openly stated that PARCC’s willingness to “waive claims” against Dr. Oyler hinged not only on removal of the material from her blog, but also upon her cooperation in identifying the teacher — within 24 hours.

Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University received a similar letter from Ms. Slover because of her blog post linking to Dr. Oyler’s, and Dr. Ravitch as well as a number of other Twitter users had tweets linking to Dr. Oyler’s post removed from the micro-blogging platform.

iN THE NAME OF PARCC

PARRC, Inc.’s heavy handed tactics lead me to a number of observations:

First: We should, once and for all, dispense with the tomfoolery from Common Core and testing proponents that the PARCC, SBAC, and other Common Core aligned exams are valuable for individual students and their families.  For some time now, they have gone on about an alleged “honesty gap” in education where students and families were told by the previous state assessments that they were doing well in school while proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress “proved” they were actually floundering.  According to this line of thought, it is a good thing that many more students struggle to meet proficiency levels on the new exams because it is a hard “truth” that families must know.

For multiple reasons (kindly demonstrated by Jersey Jazzman both here and here), this is a load of hooey.  But it is even a bigger load of hooey that these tests demonstrate this new “reality” in any meaningful way for individual students and their families, and PARCC’s heavy handed response to test security breaches pretty well proves it.  Ms. Slover told Dr. Oyler that she could happily “view over 800 released questions from the spring 2015 tests that show the breadth and depth of the kinds of questions on the PARCC assessments.” That’s all nice, but a selection of hand curated items from the exams is not remotely the same as being able to view, and critique, the exam itself.  Without releasing the entire exam, as it is presented to students who take it, there is no real ability for parents or teachers or researchers to critically examine it to determine if it is the kind of assessment PARCC claims it to be.

Even more to the point, without returning the entire exam to both teachers and students, the claim that we are “no longer lying” to people about their education is just air. When my children take an assessment made by their teachers at school, we get to see what items they got correct and what items they got wrong.  We can inquire with their teachers about what the assessment says about their strengths and about their weaknesses.  We can find out what is going on in the school to help support our children in their learning, and we can ask what we can do at home to help support their teachers.  We can plan based on the assessment with the guidance of the professional teachers who know our children in context.

PARCC does no such thing.  Far from their claim to Dr. Oyler that “transparency is one of the hallmarks of PARCC,” the hallmark of PARCC is to label students on their proficiency scale and to provide a simple statistical comparison of students to other students.  Knowing that your child scored below, near, at, or above school, district, state, and national averages may be slightly more informative than previous assessments, but it doesn’t tell anyone jack frat about a single student’s strengths, challenges, or what can be done to better support that child.  Of course, there are many standardized exams that sort and rank students, especially college and graduate/professional school admissions examinations, but nobody pretends that those exams are meant to help individual students get a better education or to provide teachers and schools with actionable information on how to better serve students.

Those promises were made for PARCC.  They are unadulterated bull plop, and will remain so as long as the current reporting system remains in place where nobody knows a darn thing about how they actually did.

Second: I remain utterly mystified why PARCC retains such a copyright on a deployed exam in the first place.  The two testing consortia, PARCC and SBAC, were awarded $330 million in grants from the federal Department of Education to develop the assessments.  At the time, PARCC was comprised of 26 states – this year, they are down to 8 “fully participating” states.  The grant announcement in 2010 promised that PARCC would “replace the one end-of-year high stakes accountability test with a series of assessments throughout the year that will be averaged into one score for accountability purposes, reducing the weight given to a single test administered on a single day, and providing valuable information to students and teachers throughout the year.”  What we’ve gotten are – wait for it – annual end of year examinations and a set of “instructional tools” that teachers can use “at their discretion” during the school year.  States left for a variety of reasons, but the projected ongoing costs certainly played a role.  The consortium, however, still has expensive contracts with various states — New Jersey’s four year contract with PARCC could top $100 million.  Pearson, by the way, was the only bidder for the contract to write the exam.

PARCC, Inc has taken in a lot of public money to develop and produce the tests.  So one has to wonder why they get to maintain so much control of the test built for public use and on the public dime?  An architecture firm that is contracted to design a new city hall may be able to copyright the design, but they cannot tell the town who can enter the building or block off entire wings from the public.  When Northrop Grumman designed and delivered the B2 stealth bomber for the U.S. Air Force, they certainly filed patents on the technology, but they did not tell the Air Force who can see the finished product and when it could be used.  They built it with public money, and then they had to let the government decide how to use it and who could know anything about it – they relinquished control.

But not PARCC, Inc which goes so far as to continuously monitor social media to detect students and others who know test content divulging any of it in public.  While it is certainly fair for the testing consortium to keep strict control on the test as it is under development and in current use, the refusal to generally distribute the test after it is done using the copyright system is noxious and thoroughly antithetical to the stated purposes of the exam, undermining any reason for the public and for educators to have faith in it as anything other than a means of sorting and ranking children and schools without real transparency. We’ve paid for PARCC’s development as a nation. The various states pay for PARCC to distribute and to deploy the exam in their states and to score them.  But not one person has a right to see the entire exam, and not one parent or teacher has the right to see how particular students did on the exam and to learn from it.  And Ms. Slover revealed PARCC’s real reason in her letter to Dr. Oyler when she threatened to hold her “personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.”

In other words: money.  PARCC wants to recycle as much as the exam as is practical, and holding the copyright threats over those who want to study and discuss the exams is the best way of doing that.

So PARCC may hold a legal copyright – but the fact that they were allowed to do so in their contracts is absurd.

Third: Even if PARCC’s copyright is legally valid, is Ms. Slover’s application of that copyright – threatening bloggers and having content removed from social media – valid?  Copyright does not provide a complete protection from revealing material that is under copyright, and Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig, Professor at California State University at Sacramento, makes a pointed observation that “fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material for a variety of purposes such as “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”  The fair use doctrine is not absolute and requires a careful balancing analysis in each and every case.  For example, “fair use” would not allow someone to set up a College and Career Readiness Assessment Partnership (or, CCRAP, if you will) and then just distribute the entire test under the guise of an “educational” purpose.

However, Dr. Oyler’s post was clearly a critique and designed to inform the public about the nature of the PARCC examinations.  While fair use under that category would have to be argued by people with expertise, it is hard to imagine why such an argument cannot be made.  Diane Ravitch reports that a board member of the Network for Public Education is an attorney with significant experience in intellectual property law, and his opinion was that PARCC’s claim has little merit.  Not only were most of the materials considered objectionable descriptions rather than excerpts, but also the question of fair use for actual quotations has to be considered given the purpose of of the blog.

Another potential fair use exception should be considered as well: news reporting.  While the law on this is a complex and shifting landscape, it is true that there have been court rulings that grant bloggers the status of journalists.  Critically examining the PARCC tests could not be more in the public interest regardless of the organization’s desire to wield copyright to prevent that examination from happening.  100s of millions of dollars of federal money was spent developing them.  States are contracted to spend 100s of million of dollars more using them.  While the secrecy about the tests make them utterly useless in helping teachers and schools design better instruction for students individually and collectively, the exams are being used for very high stakes purposes.  Annual testing is a requirement under federal law, including the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act that passed last year as the successor to No Child Left Behind.  While states and districts have more flexibility in the use of testing under the new law, there is no indication that states are rushing to remove growth measures based on standardized tests from teacher evaluations, so PARCC still has an impact on teachers’ careers.  Students and schools are still being ranked based largely on standardized test data, and under agreements with the Obama administration that are still in effect, states are obligated to identify their lowest performing schools using standardized test data.  What exactly will come when the new law is in full effect is unknown,  but there is no reason to believe that annual tests will cease to play high stakes roles in how students are sorted, how teachers are evaluated, and how schools and districts are ranked.

I find it very hard to entertain the notion that PARCC Inc’s interest in being able to continually dip into a pool of unreleased test items outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the content and the quality of tests we’ve already spent huge sums of money on and which are and will continue to be used for high stakes purposes.  PARCC needs to put down the copyright club and legitimately engage the public whose tax dollars fund its entire existence.

3 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Data, ESSA, NCLB, PARCC, Pearson, Privacy, Testing, VAMs

How to Appreciate Teachers

It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher.  If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.

(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)

Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today.  Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved nachesHistorically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?

Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work.  Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy.  No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all.  If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.

How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long?  A few suggestions:

Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals.  Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age.  In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment.  I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones.  In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.

For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice.  In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them.  79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.

The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously.  Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year.  Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment.  Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans.  We can get there, but only with a  genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.

Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning.  Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow.  It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it.  It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?

  • Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
  • Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time.  While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
  • Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities.  They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities.  Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs.  Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
  • Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students.  Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
  • Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to  the amount of $197 billion.  This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.

The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well.  If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.

Fund all of this: That might sound obvious, but it is something that has apparently escaped the federal government and our nation’s governors.  Despite the economic recovery, governors across the country from both parties still have not restored education spending to pre-2008 levels and some are still cutting.  New York remains billions of dollars annually below agreed upon funding levels from nearly a decade ago (although it did spend almost 2 million dollars arguing in court that it shouldn’t have to), and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that the money doesn’t matter.

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.

Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.

Money matters. Having more helps and yes, having less hurts, especially when those who need the most get the least.

Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.

It’s just that simple.

Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.

Across the country, there is a genuine war being waged with dark money against teachers’ workplace rights.  Hoping to build off of the initial – and now thankfully reversed – success of the Vergara lawsuit in California, former news anchor Campbell Brown has taken a pile of undisclosed money to fund similar efforts across the country for the purpose of turning all teachers into at will employees.  The fact that most of her arguments do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny does not appear to matter to her backers who continue to funnel money into her efforts. Worse, those same backers appear entirely disinterested in how incredibly complicated teachers’ workplaces are and how many competing interests intersect in their work – which Peter Greene very cogently explained is one of the most important reasons for the due process protections of tenure:

A private employee serves one master — the company.

A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.

I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher.  It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible.  Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.

So it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days.  They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and  genuinely support what makes that work possible.

2 Comments

Filed under classrooms, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Funding, Media, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Andrew Cuomo – Still Petty and Destructive

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 budget address, he sounded like a changed man.  Less that 4% of his speech was dedicated to P-12 education compared to over 20% of his 2015 budget address where he detailed a brutal agenda to make student test scores 50% of teachers’ evaluations and calling the existing teacher evaluation system, which he had previously championed, “baloney” solely because it failed to find more teachers incompetent.  Governor Cuomo charged hard at this agenda, ramming it through the budget process, but then he took a beating in public opinion polling and set off the largest opt out movement in the nation.  After months of various agencies and entities trying to walk back the harshest measures of the 2015 budget bill, Governor Cuomo’s 2016 speech in Albany presented a far less ambitious P-12 education agenda, highlighting only the light concessions he had made on standards and testing and promising to find enough money finally to stop stealing school aid from districts via the hated gap elimination adjustment.  Observers could have been forgiven for thinking this signaled a change in Governor Cuomo’s approach to education and that he might be willing to finally recognize that growth and support are better tools than test and punish.

Not a chance in Hell.

Last week, the state Division of the Budget, which reports directly to the Governor, announced that 70 schools which had improved sufficiently to be removed from receivership would no longer be eligible for state improvement funds.  The argument is based upon the fact that $75 million in state school improvement funding is only available to schools on the receivership list even though New York State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman argued that removing the money just as the schools have made progress “makes no sense.”

The Governor’s Division of the Budget could have responded in any number of ways.  They could have expressed pride in the success of schools that were removed from the list and pledged to find other ways to support their growth and development.  They could have lamented the limitations of the state receivership law that potentially leaves schools in the untenable position of having to function under constant threat of being closed even when they meet their improvement targets or of losing critically needed funds.  They could have called for an immediate legislative fix allowing the Division of the Budget to keep school improvement funds allocated while schools actually improve. After all, isn’t the purpose of examining school performance and requiring clear improvement targets about improving the schools?

Not a chance in Hell.

Spokesman for the budget division, Morris Peters fired back,  “To suggest that these schools should remain eligible for the funding even though they were removed from the program is contrary to the law and, most importantly, a blatant disservice to the children who have been condemned to these failing schools and received sub-quality education for decades.”  Mr. Peters went on to claim that NYSED had “unilaterally” removed the schools from the list, so they could not get the money.  Not a word about the improvement the schools had made.  Not a word of regret that schools which had made actual progress would lose funds.  Just a snarl worthy of the nastiest we have ever seen coming out of education “reform” in New York stapled to a gripe about NYSED actually exercising its legitimate authority.

It is helpful to revisit education authority in New York.  Contrary to Mr. Peters’ petulant gripe, the executive branch of New York has almost no direct education authority whatsoever.  Most of that authority resides with the New York State Education Department which is run by the Commissioner of Education appointed by the state Board of Regents.  The Regents, through the Commissioner, oversee the complex and sprawling University of the State of New York which includes over 7000 public and private schools, 248 public and private colleges and universities, 7000 libraries, 750 museums, the State Archives, 48 licensed professions employing over 750,000 practitioners, and 240,000 certified public school teachers, administrators, and counselors.  The Regents themselves are selected by the Legislature to represent different judicial districts and at large seats, and they elect their own Chancellor. The Executive Branch, meaning the Governor’s office, has no legal authority over the USNY and its board of Regents whatsoever.

This is not to say that the Governor is without any authority or influence.  The budget is a powerful tool with which to shape agendas, and Mr. Cuomo has wielded it like Mjolnir to smash everything in sight.  The Governor can also pressure legislators to pass favored policies, and he can cultivate a working relationship with the Regents.  Certainly, Governor Cuomo and former Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch enjoyed a chummy enough partnership, exchanging letters towards the end of calendar year 2014 that became a rough outline of Mr. Cuomo’s 2015 education agenda.  However, the Board of Regents has a new Chancellor, Betty Rosa, a former New York City teacher and administrator, who told reporters that if she were a parent and not on the Board of Regents, she “would opt out at this time.” Time will obviously tell, but it is very likely that Governor Cuomo will face far more challenges from Chancellor Rosa than he would like.

Which makes the sneering disdain from Mr. Cuomo’s budget spokesman so glaring.  Under the terms of waivers from the worst provisions of the No Child Left Behind law that New York got from the Obama administration, the state has to identify and provide interventions for so-called priority and focus schools that comprise the bottom 5% and 10% of schools respectively.  Additional legislation in New York requires that schools be identified as “struggling” and “persistently struggling”among the 5% designated “priority schools,” and these schools have very short timelines within which to make progress before they are at risk of extremely drastic consequences such as being closed and turned over to private management.  The more savvy reader will note that, based upon test scores, there will ALWAYS be a “bottom 5%” of schools in the state, so even if schools currently on the list are removed, a fresh round of schools will be eligible for priority school status immediately and given the same threats.

Not that that matters to the Governor’s office which complained bitterly that NYSED used its authority to recognize schools facing severe consequences and had improved.  Apparently, it doesn’t even matter that many of the schools removed from the list had actually made progress in the previous year according to federal accountability reports that were not available when they were originally listed.  If I had to guess, I’d wager that Governor Cuomo is most upset that the schools are no longer legally under threat of being shut down and given to charter school networks so clearly favored by him and by his campaign donors.  Recognize that the schools in question were making progress?  Recognize that remaining on the list would keep them under constant threat even though they had succeeded in beginning the improvement process?  Recognize that progress should be supported and call for ways to continue to support the schools even though they no longer met the criteria for “struggling” and “persistently struggling” schools?  Recognize that some of the interventions slated under the state grants – such as developing community schools with wrap around services for high need students – are interventions that all schools with students in extreme poverty should consider?

Not a chance in Hell. This is Andrew Cuomo’s Albany.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Betty Rosa, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, politics, Testing

Can Teachers Talk About Opt Out?

New York City teachers Jia Lee, Lauren Cohen, and Kristin Taylor risked disciplinary action recently to speak with NBC news about their opposition to the state testing system and their support of the Opt Out movement.

bats

This was no small act on their part because the NYC DOE has sent multiple signals that it does not tolerate classroom teachers speaking against the tests which have been occupying schools’ time and attention this month.  District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop stated her belief that any teacher encouraging opt outs was engaging in political speech and that such acts were not permissible for teachers speaking as teachers. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said that teachers are free to speak as private citizens but not to speak as “representatives of the department,” and New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said “I don’t think that the teachers’ putting themselves in the middle of it is a good idea.”  None of these figures have specified what possible consequences could befall teachers for speaking in favor of opt out and against the state standardized tests – but the ambiguous statements alone are sufficient to deter many city teachers from speaking their mind.  Add in the history of “gag orders” that prevent teachers from discussing the contents of the examinations – even as professionals seeking to improve tests after they have been used – and speaking to the media as these teachers did is an act of exceptional bravery.

Walking the line between teacher and “private citizen” is exceptionally ambiguous.  Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms. Taylor were all identified as New York City teachers by the reporter in the story, but does that automatically make them not private citizens?  Most members of our society are not required to hide their professions when speaking on political matters within the public sphere, and in many communities, teachers’ identities are well known to parents, making the distinction between their professional and private selves far less distinct.  Furthermore, as professionals in a school system governed by different political systems, teachers have legitimate observations and, yes, criticism to make about policies that impact their work and, therefore, their students.  Simply saying teachers cannot be “political” as teachers is plainly too simplistic.

However, this cannot be only a matter of saying teachers have free speech rights in their role as teachers.  There are legal and legitimate limitations on what teachers can say. For example, federal law protects the privacy of students’ academic records and while a teacher can discuss a child’s performance with both parents and involved professionals in pursuit of helping that child, the law prevents that same teacher from discussing the child’s academic record outside of that context.  Teachers also possess academic freedom within the classroom, but that is not well defined, subject to significant limitations and considerations of the interests of school boards, communities, parents, and children.  Generally, teachers have to balance their rights with their significant responsibilities within the classroom, including their responsibility to the adopted curriculum in a district.

Outside of the classroom, teachers also have limits on what they can say and for good reasons.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a teacher who claimed her free speech rights were violated when she was fired for keeping a public blog full of insults about students and parents in her school.  This is fundamentally different than writing about politics or using a public forum like letters to the editor to speak about “matters of public concern” as a citizen — her speech gave parents legitimate reasons to demand that she not teach their children.  The Washington branch of the ACLU maintains a page with various examples of speech scenarios in which a teacher may or may not be protected from job consequences, and the examples demonstrate that teachers often have additional constraints on their speech related to their ability to perform their responsibilities.  On the other hand, purely political speech, even related to education issues, can be strongly protected outside of the classroom.

Consider the case of Boston long term substitute teacher Jeffrey Herman who testified at a Boston City Council meeting against the expense of maintaining a Junior ROTC program in the city and advocating what he believed was a better use of those funds – and who was screamed at by the head of Boston English High School and essentially blacklisted from working there.  While that case was settled with no admission of wrongdoing by the city, the implication is clear enough:  Mr. Herman was entirely within his rights to speak in the public sphere on a matter of public concern.  A staff attorney for the ACLU made this obvious:  “Teachers are entitled to political opinions just like everyone else…We need them to feel free to share those opinions with public and elected officials, outside the school, without fear of losing their jobs for doing so. Jeff Herman had a right to speak out at City Hall about Boston spending over a million dollars on JROTC…”

This would seem to neatly point towards a general right for teachers to speak critically of standardized testing and in favor of opt out as long as they do not suggest that they are speaking for district and school administrations in the process.  While teachers are obligated to teach the adopted curriculum of the school and to participate in duties such as test administration, critiques of both the curriculum and testing are matters of public concern.  Administrators can probably restrict teachers from proactively soliciting opt outs on the school grounds, but they would be beyond bounds to restrict teachers from speaking elsewhere – even if their audience knows that they are teachers. Further, if asked by parents about the tests, it is very plausible that teachers have the right to offer an informed and critical perspective. Grumbling from Tweed Courthouse notwithstanding, Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms Taylor should be secure in their advocacy and their speaking with reporters.

But perhaps this should not merely be a matter of whether or not teachers disciplined for speaking against testing could win a civil rights suit.  Perhaps this needs to be framed as a matter of professionalism and professional judgement because while teachers have responsibilities and rights in the performance of their work, they also have professional obligations and norms that define what it means to be a teacher.  Among those is the need to speak up when children are being ill served or harmed by what is going on within school.  John Goodlad referred to practicing “good moral stewardship of schools” and this principle is as important to teaching as “do no harm” is for medicine or being a zealous advocate is for law.  Teachers are given an awesome and sacred trust – the intellectual, social, and emotional well being and growth of other people’s children.  Speaking out when that trust is in jeopardy is not simply a question of Constitutional rights.  It is a moral obligation.

Do teachers have good reason for concern about how these tests impact their stewardship?   New York City teacher Katie Lapham certainly makes a compelling case:

The reading passages were excerpts and articles from authentic texts (magazines and books).  Pearson, the NYSED or Questar did a poor job of selecting and contextualizing the excerpts in the student test booklets.  How many students actually read the one-to-two sentence summaries that appeared at the beginning of the stories? One excerpt in particular contained numerous characters and settings and no clear story focus.  The vocabulary in the non-fiction passages was very technical and specific to topics largely unfamiliar to the average third grader.  In other words, the passages were not meaningful. Many students could not connect the text-to-self nor could they tap into prior knowledge to facilitate comprehension.

The questions were confusing.  They were so sophisticated that it appeared incongruous to me to watch a third grader wiggle her tooth while simultaneously struggle to answer high school-level questions. How does one paragraph relate to another?, for example. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose more.  The multiple-choice answer choices were tricky, too. Students had to figure out the best answer among four answer choices, one of which was perfectly reasonable but not the best answer.

NYSED claims they removed time limits from the test in order to remove performance pressure from very young children, but there are documented cases of this actually matter the exams worse for students.  A Brooklyn teacher blogging anonymously notes:

This afternoon I saw one of my former students still working on her ELA test at 2:45 pm. Her face was pained and she looked exhausted. She had worked on her test until dismissal for the first two days of testing as well. 18 hours. She’s 9.

This is a student who is far above grade level in reading, writing and every measurable area imaginable. She definitely got a 3 or 4 on this test. She is a hard worker and powers through challenges with quiet strength and determination. She is not “coddled.” She is sweet, brilliant and creative and as far as I know she has always loved school. She is also shy and a perfectionist.

After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could draw for a while in my room to calm down and then cried over her drawing for the next 20 minutes.

New York City education advocate Leonie Haimson reported on numerous items of test content that she was able to glean from various sources.  They included a sixth grade test including a 17th century poem often studied in college, obscure vocabulary in the 8th grade exam, disturbing product placements within reading passages, and missing prep pages without adequate instructions on how to assist students.

Beyond these specific examples, teachers can be rightly concerned about the entire environment within which these exams take place.  Since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, testing and test preparation have become more and more ends unto themselves instead of quiet background monitoring of the school system.  We have spent more than a decade now in a policy cycle based upon “test-label-punish” without considering how to give schools teaching our most vulnerable students the resources and supports needed to do right by those children, their families, and communities.  And we have very, very little to show for it except a narrowing curriculum in communities across the country and a crushing increase of academic work at younger and younger ages despite the abject harm it inflicts upon children who need play to learn and to be healthy.  Practicing “good stewardship” as a professional teacher clearly embraces openly objecting to these harmful practices.

Ms. Lee told NBC, ““Parents should definitely opt out. Refuse. Boycott these tests because change will not happen with compliance.”  She went on to call herself a “conscientious objector.”

She is also a true professional, guarding the well being of the children entrusted to her.

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under classrooms, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher professsionalism, Testing

NYC Hasn’t Gotten the Opt Out Memo

Let’s begin with one simple premise: nobody at the New York State Education Department wants to see Opt Out continue to be a significant factor in the Empire State.  The United States Department of Education sent a variety of states letters explaining they had an obligation to test 95% of all student in all subgroups without fail, even offering various measures from cajoling to threatening that the states could take to get all of those students to sit down and be tested. After some initial stumbles, NYSED settled on a “kinder and gentler” approach, trying to coax the 20% of eligible families to opt back in to the tests.  Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly ran away from NYSED Commissioner Elia’s suggestion that districts with high opt out might lose funding.  In short order, Commissioner Elia affirmed that her office had no intention of withholding funds and admitted that parents had the legal right to refuse to submit their child for the state exams.  In the following months, Albany introduced a series of changes to the exams – such as reducing them by a few question and removing time limits – that they hoped with allay parental concerns, and Commissioner Elia’s office put together a “tool kit” for district and schools to use to explain the exams to parents.  The information provided for both letters and presentations emphasizes what NYSED sees as positive and necessary aspects of the tests instead of negative consequences for low test participation rates.

Parents and educators may disagree about the significance of the changes and about the accuracy of the information in the state materials, but the strategy was obvious: Gently persuade parents and communities back into the fold.  This was certainly a sensible approach considering the pasting Albany took not only on state testing but also on the entire education agenda championed by Governor Cuomo throughout 2015.  Even before he managed to bully his plans to use state tests as 50% of teacher evaluations through the Assembly, voters disapproved of his education agenda by extremely wide margins.  The Governor took such a pummeling in the polls on education in 2015, that his 2016 budget address only had 364 words on P-12 education that more or less reduced his entire platform to “yadda yadda yadda…teachers are swell.”  When it comes to public education in the Empire State, our leaders in Albany have spent most of 2016 trying to pour gallons of honey on their plate full of vinegar.

Someone in New York City did not get the memo, apparently.

Test refusal was not a significant issue in New York City last year, although a handful of schools saw much higher opt out rates than the city in general. But the office of New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina apparently wants to take no chances of it gaining more than a toehold.  Pro-testing forces upstate seem happy to rely upon outside groups to carry the “opt in” message and to focus on emphasizing what they see as meeting test protesters part way, but the offices in Tweed aren’t taking any risks that opt out can grow and thrive in the Big Apple. In the run up to the tests, The New York Times reported ongoing and serious negative talk about teachers who spoke out against the tests and in favor of opting out:

At a forum in December, Anita Skop, the superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn, which had the highest rate of test refusals in the city last year, said that for an educator to encourage opting out was a political act and that public employees were barred from using their positions to make political statements.

On March 7, the teachers at Public School 234 in TriBeCa, where only two students opted out last year, emailed the school’s parents a broadside against the tests. The email said the exams hurt “every single class of students across the school” because of the resources they consumed.

But 10 days later, when dozens of parents showed up for a PTA meeting where they expected to hear more about the tests, the teachers were nowhere to be seen. The school’s principal explained that “it didn’t feel safe” for them to speak, adding that their union had informed them that their email could be considered insubordination. The principal, Lisa Ripperger, introduced an official from the Education Department who was there to “help oversee our meeting.”

Several principals said they had been told by either the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, or their superintendents that they and their teachers should not encourage opting out. There were no specific consequences mentioned, but the warnings were enough to deter some educators.

One could possibly claim teachers speaking against the tests are engaging in political speech against contract rule – or one could argue they are expressing a professional opinion on the negative impact of testing they see with their own eyes in their own classrooms.  Certainly, the letter from PS234 teachers, as described, focuses on the consequences to students’ learning conditions rather than on any political outcome, but DOE is clearly trying to back channel messages to principals and teachers that negative comments about the test are off limits.  That would certainly explain an incident at PS 84 in Williamsburg where a principal chastised a fifth grader handing out Opt Out information until the child cried and then herded all third through fifth grade into an impromptu assembly to tell them to “get this opt out stuff out of your head.”  The principal went on to tell students not to listen to their parents and that the state exams would make them smarter.

That was not the behavior of a professional educational leader who feels free to allow open discussion of an important issue within the school.  For that matter, the principal’s behavior was arguably in violation of long standing case law on students’ first amendment rights within school.

Susan Trout, a Manhattan parent, forwarded a letter that her child’s middle school principal sent to all 8th grade parents, warning them about the consequences of a large number of opt outs:

This is a “low stakes year” for the eighth graders. Their performance on the exams will not be used by the high schools for placement or for admissions. It is not, however, a “low stakes year” for *******. If we do not test 95% of our students, the school will automatically be categorized as a School Under Review by New York State. This will result in a series of measures which may force us to change our curriculum, our staffing decisions and our program. It most certainly comes with close review of the school by the state, along with the paperwork to defend the school’s performance. This may negatively affect the students who will be at ***** for the next couple of years.

According to Ms. Trout, parents in her school who wrote to the principal expressing their desire to opt out of the test were then contacted individually by the school’s parent coordinator with the following message:

Hello.  By refusing to participate, you are putting us in jeopardy of no longer being considered a school in good standing.  We must have 95% participation to keep our school grade as is.  I would ask you to reconsider having your children take the test.  It is actually good practice for  their high school career since they will be tested a great deal in the college application process!

She then contacted the office of the Public Advocate in New York City for clarification, and got quite a different answer:

Regulations state that if a district has 3 consecutive years failing a SPECIFIC category, then they can be identified. If one year it’s because of special Ed scores, next year participation rates, the next was a whole other category, then no changes. Has to be failure of the SAME category 3 years running.  Even the handful of districts that fell below 95% for 4 years in a row (handful in NYS) were still not penalized or labeled. The label forces a plan put in place to fix the category/reason for failure, in this case, a parent boycott. The state knew better than to go forward with any consequence. 

Districts that were focus districts last year AND had less than 95% were taken off the list. Doesn’t make sense that % alone would cause them to be labeled. I realize all of the above specifies districts, not schools. However,confirmed by DOE staffer: there is absolutely NO POLICY that says one instance of <95% participation would result in “automatic characterization” of anything by NYS. It’s not an “automatic” process and is in fact based upon the previous 2-3 years in the event that a school falls below 95% in one year.

The information given by DOE to the Public Advocate’s office is diametrically opposed to the information a middle school administration circulated to parents.  Ms. Trout asked her parent coordinator about this discrepancy and was told that the information was from a “directive” from the district superintendent. Again, this is completely out of proportion to what any other level of education governance in the state is saying right now, and it is vexing, not because the city administration believes in testing, but because it is relying on incomplete and often misleading means to support the tests.

There was a brief moment, when it looked like the NYC educational bureaucracy was softening a bit.  Chancellor Farina was reported as having said in a private meeting that she would consider opting out a child if that child had a certain kind of Individualized Education Plan or was a new arrival in the country with very limited English, and Mayor Bill de Blasio met with opt out advocates in order to hear their views, clarifying that he still thought the tests were important.

Any hope that there was room for openness at Tweed, however, was shut down rapidly as the tests began this week.  Chancellor Farina said that her earlier comments were taken “out of context” and she further chastised parents who opt out, saying: “I believe students go to school to be held accountable for their work…What are you saying about your child?  What are you saying about your belief in them to do something that they’ve been gearing for all year?” This statement is fairly breathtaking.  It is one thing to believe in a system of school accountability that includes standardized testing, although the history of the No Child Left Behind era is pretty clear on this: test based accountability has had 15 years for results and it does not have themBut the Chancellor’s statement frames the accountability tests as objectives of the school year unto themselves.  The tests hold students “accountable for their work”?  The state standardized accountability test is “something they’ve been gearing for all year”?  I can honestly think of few ways of framing this worse than Chancellor Farina just did.  My children are preparing for many important things in their education this year – sitting in a standardized exam that takes longer to finish than the LSAT or the MCAT is just about the least important thing they could do.

I suppose — I just suppose — that we could be at least a little grateful for the wild spinning and random lashing out from the Chancellor’s office.  NYSED has tinkered a smidgen around the edges of the tests and they’ve taken a softer tone with the public.  But there can be no doubt – they want Opt Out to go away so they can keep these tests as the status quo.  Chancellor Farina, on the other hand, is being aggressive about her dislike for Opting Out, leading to repeated situations where parents are being told information that is flatly contrary to NYSED’s stated policies. History suggests that this level of overreaction and misdirection aimed at parents backfires.  If Opt Out grows in NYC, we might just have the Chancellor to thank for it.

Opting Out

 

4 Comments

Filed under Activism, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, Opt Out, Testing

No, You Cannot Test My Child

Dear Local Education Authority (LEA), State Education Authority (SEA), and Federal Education Bureaucrat (FEB?),

We are rapidly approaching the annual state mandated testing ritual in public school, and it has become evident that all of you are a little nervous about that.  I know this because you keep sending letters to each other about how important it is that every LEA test 95% of all children in every school and that every SEA make certain that LEAs know just how important this is.  Last Fall, FEB Ann Whalen sent a dozen SEAs letters explaining to them just how important it is that they meet their testing requirements and suggesting a range of measures, both persuasive and punitive, if LEAs did not make their testing goals.  This was followed by another letter to all states essentially reiterating the point. SEAs have been busy trying to impress upon their LEAs how seriously they take the federal requirement to test 95% of all students in all schools although with different approaches.  In Connecticut, state officials have more or less threatened LEAs, while New York, home of the largest test refusal movement in the country, has tried to woo back refusing parents to the wonderful world of testing with a series of concessions on the use of tests for teacher assessment and the timed nature of the tests and a nifty “tool kit” to explain how awesome testing can be.

So, okay, I get it: A lot of you SEAs have been nervous about what the FEBs are saying, and you are pressuring your LEAs to use both honey and vinegar to convince parents to just up and let their kids be tested already.

cat on leash

You still can’t test my kid.

I know that you are supposed to try to convince me, otherwise, and it is probably too much to ask you to save yourself the time.  However, if you do feel the need to persuade me that the testing ritual is excellent and worthwhile, you should know that I have heard most of your arguments, and, frankly, you need new ones.

To begin with, I am actually aware that my children will take tests during their lives, and it is not my intention to keep them from ever experiencing a standardized test.  The thing is that most of those tests will actually serve some purpose for their lives if and when they take them.  While standardized test measures are of questionable quality for college, graduate school, or professional school admission, where they are required to pursue those goals, my children will take them at the appropriate time.  You should also know that I expect my children to take teacher made tests throughout their education.  Tests and other assessments are part of an education, and professional teachers know how to use all kinds of tools to see how well their students are learning.

But when tests used for a state accountability system take nine hours – 6 hours LONGER than the LSAT and and an hour and half longer than the MCAT – and when the tests have to be taken every.single.year – something is seriously out of whack.  Of course, the tests themselves are not the only issue.  Because of the incentives attached to these tests, districts and schools across the country spend far more time preparing for and practicing test taking that any scheme for school accountability can justify.  Robert Pondiscio, Vice President of External Affairs for the pro-education reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, gets this and has urged federal officials to back off the warped incentive systems that make standardized tests end unto themselves.  He’s argued that as long as punishing consequences for schools and teachers are attached to testing, we will have this problem.  So far, he hasn’t been listened to much.

So I expect that my children will taken standardized tests – possibly many over the course of their lives.  But when a state accountability test consumes so much time and is attached to stakes that warp my children’s education, well, the cart is definitely in front of the horse.

cart_before_horse

Further, I already know that it is a matter of faith at the Federal DOE that without testing we can never look a second grader in the eye and tell her ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not.’ Frankly, if that is your goal for a conversation with a 7 year old child, then I’d kindly ask you to never visit a school, thanks, but beyond that, it remains a horrible failure of imagination to think that a state accountability test is our best and essential way to check whether or not an individual child is learning.  If you really want to increase the ability of parents to understand how well their children are doing, there are tools with far greater sophistication that teachers could actually use in their classrooms than an accountability test given in April whose results don’t come back until the next school year is well underway.  In fact, considering the amount of time in the school year spent scrambling to prepare for and to administer state tests, it is entirely counter-intuitive to think these tests are really good for telling me how my children are doing.  And if we need to increase parental engagement with their children’s education in all of our communities, what makes more sense?  Investing in strategies and programs that are proven to help parents and guardians connect with school? Or a two page score report that doesn’t include the slightest hint of what kind of test questions the test taker got wrong or how to learn from them?

The question was rhetorical, by the way.

tests-human-resources-cartoon-400px

I also understand that you want me to know that without a system of annual standardized testing with full participation then there will be no accountability for my local schools and they will be free to ignore the needs of minority children at will.  This is certainly an argument that has been made with vigor, and it is one our friends the FEBs have insisted is the primary reason for testing every child in every year.  I will admit there is something to this argument – not because annual testing has been a great force for making education for all students equitable.  Fifteen years in and test-based accountability has been pretty wretched at that goal.  It is, however, true that our school system has nowhere near the distribution of opportunity that would make the promise of a democratic school system a reality.

But test-based accountability has the whole thing reversed.  We have a test-based “achievement gap” which reflects the opportunity gap that exists across communities all over the country.  To suggest that the test measured gaps result in the economic gaps ignores every bit of nuance and complexity that we know about both poverty’s impacts and how segregation by income concentrates large percentages of children from poor households into specific neighborhoods.  The connection between poverty and tested results is so tight that Dr. Christopher Tienken and colleagues of Seton Hall University were able to use census data to accurately predict student proficiency scores on state tests in different communities.  State accountability testing is telling us very little that we do not already know.

On the other hand, those same tests have been giving ammunition to policies that insist upon educational “improvement” without focusing upon the resources necessary to work successfully with high need students: smaller class sizes, wrap around services, teacher retention policies, facility improvements, extended programs and after school supervision – none of it is free and very little of it has been offered to schools and districts under threat because of lagging test scores.  Instead of genuine investment in their schools and communities, these neighborhoods are offered the “creative disruption” of school privatization that saps resources from fully public schools without accountability – all justified by test scores.  No wonder then that there is a small but significant and growing conversation among civil rights activists about whether or not annual testing is the tool it was presented to be in NCLB.

charter

My family does understand the pressure you are under, LEA.  The SEA, under a lot of heat from the FEBs, has been issuing dire warnings if 95% of all students are not tested.  Most of that is just hot air, however, and as long as you do actually test the children whose families do not opt out, you have done what you can reasonably be expected to do.  We’ve spoken as a family all together, adults and children, and we simply do not think that any of the arguments you have made or are likely to make in favor of annual testing are going to sway us.  When there is a state accountability system that is rational and used as the basis for helping schools, teachers, and students, when we accept that community and school improvement have to happen together, and when we recognize that we cannot improve schools without committing the necessary resources, then we’ll reconsider our decision.

Until then, no, you cannot test my child.

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, NCLB, Opt Out, schools, Testing

“Education Next” Discovers That Water is Wet

Education Next is a reliable source of pro-education reform content.  Published by Stanford University’s libertarian leaning Hoover Institution which “seeks to secure and safeguard peace, improve the human condition, and limit government intrusion into the lives of individuals,” the magazine/journal is also sponsored by Kennedy School of Government’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (affiliated with reliably pro-reform organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance for School Choice,  Center for Education Reform, and the Heartland Institute) and the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, dedicated to the premise that pretty much our entire education system is dysfunctional or dumbed down.  Education Next blends characteristics of magazine publishing and peer reviewed journals in a quarterly publication that occasionally has tastes towards provocations that few purely academic journals would attempt.  Michael Petrilli, the President of Fordham, is both a research fellow at Hoover and an editor at Education Next, and, by his own admission, loves “to mix it up” – which can put the publication in controversial spots even within the pro-reform community.

For the Summer 2016 issue, the publication is not courting controversy so much as it is stating the obvious and begging the question.  Editor-in-Chief and Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University Paul Peterson and Harvard post-doctoral candidates Samuel Barrows and Thomas Gift offer us the “good news” that in the wake of Common Core, states are setting “rigorous standards.”  I say this with a degree of tongue-in-cheek because the article’s conclusion are fairly obvious – if you start with the premise that everything education reform has been saying for the past decade and a half is pretty much entirely true.  Raise questions or complications to the exercise of standards, high stakes accountability testing, and their utility as policy levers and the entire exercise gets a lot less laudatory.

Dr. Peterson and his associates lay out their case like this:

  • Most states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core State Standards or some variation of the standards.  To their credit, the authors do not avoid the major role of the Gates Foundation in financially supporting the CCSS and of the Obama administration in creating incentives for states to adopt the standards, and they provide some insight into the opposition to the standards from both liberal and conservative sides of the issue (although they greatly oversimplify liberal concerns to union politics – even though both major national teacher unions signed on the Common Core experiment).
  • Since 2005, Education Next has used a grade scale for state proficiency standards developed by the Program on Education Policy and Governance where Dr. Peterson works (and which is a sponsor of Education Next).  According to this scale “state standards have suddenly skyrocketed.”
  • The authors also infer that if results from NCLB mandated annual proficiency examinations are close to state results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) then the state proficiency standard is as strict as the NAEP.  The authors refer to their assessment of states as “truth in advertising” about how well states tell parents how their children are actually doing.  This is another variation of the “honesty gap” argument that has was featured prominently by education reformers as states and communities got ready to receive the results of Common Core aligned testing.
  • According to the “size of the difference between the percentages of students identified as proficient by state and by NAEP exams in 4th and 8th grade math and reading,” “the last two years have witnessed the largest jump in state standards since they were established as part of the federal accountability program.”  The authors report that 36 states have “strengthened their standards,” and they further declare “the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.”
  • The authors admit that the opt out rates in some states may complicate these scores; to whatever degree students who refuse the tests would have been high scorers, this would artificially lower the percentage of students scoring proficient.  Further, Massachusetts allowed districts to select between the state’s original MCAS exams or the new PARCC exams, but there is no way as of yet to know if higher performing districts kept the MCAS.
  • The authors also observe that states’ standards performance has narrowed recently with 80% of state proficiency rates being within 15 points of their NAEP results.

So to sum up: The federal government provided incentives and policy pressure for states to sign on to the Common Core State Standards.  States are now administering federally mandated accountability testing aligned with those standards (28 of them with either the PARCC or SBAC testing groups specifically chartered to write CCSS aligned exams).  The percentage of students who rank proficient in these exams is much closer to the percentage of students who rank proficient on the NAEP in those same states.  Education Next handed out a bunch of As to states because they “raised their standards.”

In other news: Water is wet.

water is wet

Dr. Peterson’s argument here is a little bit as if I took up alpaca ranching and then two years later praised myself for all of the timid, wooly, camelids on my property.  Education Next may give states enormous credit for decreasing the percentage of students who are deemed proficient in their state tests and bringing those percentages closer to the results of the NAEP, but the desirability of this is unexamined as is why doing so raises a state in the authors’ estimation.

This is no small question because it is hardly a given that a decrease in the gap between state exam proficiency percentages and those on NAEP indicates actual educational improvement or even that standards are actually “rigorous” as the Education Next headline claims.  New Jersey, for example, scored very well in the authors’ rating with 2.1% fewer students ranked as proficient in state testing compared to the last NAEP.  According to Education Next, New Jersey earned only a C in 2005 well before the Common Core State Standards, but research by Dr. Chris Tienken and Dr. Eunyoung Kim of Seton Hall University with Dr. Dario Sforza, Principal of Henry B. Pecton Regional High School, found that, using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework, New Jersey’s pre-Common Core Standards required more creative and strategic thinking in English Language Arts.  New Jersey may have scored higher on Education Next’s metric, but the standards being used in K-12 English arguably demand less higher order thinking.

Dr. Peterson and his associates also leave the desirability of getting state proficiency levels closer to NAEP’s entirely unexamined and simply assume that it is a good thing.  This, too, is no small question because the NAEP’s proficiency targets are deliberately set very high.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University sat on the NAEP Board of Governors for seven years and explains here that proficient and highly proficient in the NAEP are pegged to very high level work in the A range for most students.  Further, she explains here that this was done deliberately because Dr. Chester Finn, who chaired the NAEP Board, is not impressed with the quality of American education in general and wanted the proficiency levels in NAEP to reflect that.  The PARCC consortium consulted NAEP heavily in the creation of its test while SBAC used far less from the NAEP, but as of last May, SBAC did not expect scores to vary that much from the national program.  Even outside the consortia, states looked very deliberately to decrease the number of students labeled proficient.  New York State linked its proficiency levels to performance on the test that an ETS study said was predictive of SAT scores only a third of students obtain; lo and behold, the number of students labeled proficient dropped to about a third.  This was also roughly the same as New York’s eighth grade NAEP English results which have been 33% or 35% at proficient or above since 2003.  Just for good measure, 33.2% of New Yorkers over the age of 25 have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

None of this, however, changes a simple fact: the setting of cut scores for different levels of proficiency is a choice independent of how the scale scores from the exams are distributed.  New Jersey teacher, Rutgers graduate student, and blogger Jersey Jazzman deftly explains that even when New York set its cut scores to a very high level, the distribution of scale scores on the state exam barely moved, and that is because the decision to place cut scores is independent of how students do on the test itself and of how schools and districts and states compare to each other.  Gaps between subgroups and communities still exist and students’ performance on the test itself remains largely unchanged whether “proficient” is set to capture 60% of all test takes or 30%.  It should be noted that based on the authors’ descriptions, a state could probably have changed nothing about their standards or their accountability exam, set their cut scores to label fewer kids as proficient, and gotten a high grade in their report.

Left undiscussed is whether or not this is remotely desirable for a state system of accountability testing.  If “proficient” and “highly proficient” are achievement labels that should be reserved for students likely to go to a four year college or university, then education reform advocates have never effectively made that case to the public, preferring instead to point to the results on state testing that have been designed with this specific result in mind and declaring themselves correct about how poor a job our nation’s schools are doing. On the other hand, even if these cut score level are correct, what is the argument that we need vastly more children scoring at these levels?  I’ve argued repeatedly on these pages that there is little economic evidence that the nation’s economy is in need of more Bachelor’s degrees and that the inability of people to get ahead with a college education or to live above a subsistence level without one is a much greater crisis needing vastly more widespread action than can be achieved by schools alone.  While it is absolutely true that educational opportunity, like economic opportunity, is unequally distributed by race and class, the solutions for that are not going to be found by rigging cut scores but rather by substantially addressing something education reformers today generally discount: inequitable and inadequate school funding.

Ultimately, a lot of education reform, this report included, is a giant exercise of begging the question where a conclusion is presumed to be true without ever having been argued:

“These test results show that states have made their proficiency standards more rigorous.”

“Why do they show that?”

“The percentages of students scoring ‘proficient’ is closer to the NAEP than on prior tests.”

“Why does that show that the state standards are more rigorous?”

“Because NAEP is a rigorous exam.”

hermione_eye_roll

4 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, NCLB, PARCC, standards, Testing